Action learning is a learning experience that includes a problem, an action, a group of peers and built-in reflection
Most of us have heard the famous Confucius quote, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I under-stand.” I like to extend this quote with another line: “I reflect and I learn.”
One of the key ways people learn is by being exposed to cycles of “doing and reflecting”. We call this process “action learning”. But as leadership development professionals, how do we design and implement powerful action learning experiences?
What is Action Learning?
Action learning is not the same as action learning projects. There are many organizations that include action learning projects in their leadership development programs. That is, they assign business projects to teams of learners as a way for them to put their learning to use. While action learning projects are a good idea in theory, they can be hard to implement. They require management commitment, project sponsorship, high quality projects and strong governance and they can be derailed by a variety of organizational challenges.
Action learning is a process which involves solving real challenges. This is best done when learners work with peers to analyze the problem, develop innovative solutions, implement actions and reflect on the outcome. Defined more sharply, action learning is a learning experience that includes a problem, an action, a group of peers and the crucial piece: Built-in reflection.
What Does Action Learning Look Like?
Action learning can include innovative methodolo-gies beyond business projects. At Harvard Business Publishing, we have developed a range of innovative action learning assignments that are relatively easy to implement. These include well-designed as-signments such as case study competitions, simulations, teaching others and peer problem solving Let’s take the example of a case study competi-tion. Typically, participants are divided into teams and each team is tasked with solving the same problem covered in the case study. Teams identify the actions they would take to solve this problem. Then, each team presents its “solution” to other teams and a panel. As participants listen to the presentation, they are exposed to the different ways in which a problem can be solved. If facilitated well, this assignment can be an extremely powerful experience. Such assignments offer space for reflective learning that leads to creativity in bringing about behavioral change at the work place. These assignments also build a safe environment to explore new and unconventional ways of thinking, doing and achieving different solutions. In this process new ideas and opportunities emerge which help in shap-ing leaders at both personal and professional level.
How Do You Facilitate Reflection?
The real impact of action learning lies in our ability to facilitate reflection. On its own, action may not lead to learning, but reflecting on the action does. Let’s go back to our case study example. If a team has presented its case study solution and heard from the other teams, we can hope that each participant has reflected on the ideas and outcomes presented, but we can’t be sure. The process should be followed by a reflection session after the presentation - the crucial “built-in reflection” piece. Asking the right open-ended questions helps each learner in his or her personal journey and locks the learning so that the participants are better able to apply it in real world situations.
A few questions to ask:
• What was my approach to solving this problem?
• What approach did other team members use?
• What could I have done differently?
• What did I learn?
When and Where Should We Incorporate Action Learning?
Action learning should not be treated as a separate section of a leadership program, but rather integrated with reflection opportunities at logical points in a program. A good rule of thumb is to add an action learning assignment after each conceptual learning milestone is finished and before the next conceptual learning process begins. After learners are exposed to a new idea, they then participate in action learning, where they do and then reflect. Then they move on to another new idea, with another action learning opportunity. This sequence gives learners a variety of ways to internalize the material as you expose learners to a wide range of action learning assignments in a program and also increase the number of structured reflection opportunities.